For a healthy relationship, follow your head as much as your heart
By Stacia Nash
You catch each other’s gaze each day as you wait to board your morning train. You purposefully sit next to each other at meetings. And the cutie who runs the organic deli next to your office, don’t even start. But where do you start? Dating, that is.
The simple answer lies within you. “If you’re looking for a relationship, you have to be ready; you have to learn about yourself,” says Anne Smith, executive director of Breakthrough at Caron Treatment Centers. “Alcoholics Anonymous recommends a minimum of a year [of recovery]. But what matters is what you did that year. Before dating, people need to process, ‘What have I’ve been doing?’, ‘How does that jeopardize my recovery?’, ‘What am I going to do?’”
This doesn’t mean you can’t have coffee with your new friend from Wednesday’s morning group. It just means you need to be aware of the fact that you are more vulnerable and susceptible to unhealthy relationships once you enter sobriety. After all, dating is never simple. There are no guarantees, and broken hearts should be expected. But in recovery, it is crucial to remember sobriety is your No. 1 priority and that relationships are the biggest trigger for relapse.
“Recovering people chalk everything up to addiction and automatically assume, ‘Now I’m better, I’ll do better,’” Smith says. “But your relationship pattern is established well before your addiction; it’s from childhood. So how would that change? If you start dating before you know yourself, you’re going to repeat the past.”
Once you’re ready to put yourself out there, make sure you know what you’re looking for in a relationship and make sure your date fits those criteria. It may even be helpful to jot down a list to review and revise as you continue to grow and learn about yourself. “For people in recovery, they feel a lot of shame and hope people will like them,” Smith says. “That’s not the attitude! You need to like them.”
Try to be honest with yourself about the person in whom you are interested. Assess positive and negative traits as realistically as possible. When recovery is at stake, you really need to look at the whole person. “Meet their family, meet their friends and notice what they do. Are they always getting together at bars?” cautions Smith. “Gradually, you ask questions. Be astute. You have to see it, live it, know what’s going on.”
When to Disclose Your Past
When you do find a special someone, at some point you need to discuss your past. Not necessarily on your first date—but not too much later. “Put it out there soon,” advises Mary Gordon, director of Family and Outpatient Services at the Betty Ford Center. “Not so much for the other person but for yourself. You don’t want to hide. You’re living a program of honesty and trust.”
Disclosing your past may be uncomfortable, but it’s necessary for a healthy relationship. Consult with your sponsor, and talk about your fears. Even test out what you’ll say. It can be as simple as “I can’t drink.” Remember, even though you’re used to going to meetings and discussing things in-depth, your date may not be, so you need to set boundaries. “As long as you’re honest and up front, that’s a boundary,” says Gordon. “Unloading is too much.”
Of course, if you are dating someone in recovery, discussing your past may not be an issue. However, Smith believes that dating someone else in recovery may pose other issues. “People assume they should look for people in meetings,” she says. “But that isn’t a good idea. The people in programs are more likely to be problematic and haven’t had time to deal with [their own] issues.”
Whether or not you date someone in recovery, you can do your best to make smart choices and prepare yourself for the ups and downs of dating. Gordon suggests the following tips to help you keep grounded as you re-enter the world of courtship.
- Put your sobriety first—always.
- Go slowly.
- Check in with your sponsor regularly.
- Go to your meetings religiously.
- Stay connected with your community. Don’t isolate in a relationship.
- Learn how to be yourself first, and then learn how to be with someone else.
- Tune in to low impulse control, and act responsibly.
- Work things out, even during times of high stress.
- Be open and honest about where you are in your recovery, even if you’re with someone who’s not in recovery.
Most importantly, don’t let the fear of dating keep you from enjoying your new life of sobriety. Though new relationships require emotional vulnerability, the process of recovery innately provides you with a better sense of your authentic self and gives you permission to be happy. “You’re going to get better with yourself, so you’re going to have the ability to be in a loving relationship,” assures Gordon. “You’ll have more to give someone else.”
Adds Smith, “If you take it seriously, you will say no way more than you say yes, and you will have lots of interesting stories!”
Sometimes Love Is Right in Front of You
Three years into her sobriety, Alice from Harrisburg, Pa., met the love of her life at her regular Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting. “AA was the focus of my life,” she says. “That’s where I was finding my friends.”
Although it was tempting to jump into a romantic relationship, Alice and her new crush agreed to take things slowly. “We were friends for six months before we started dating,” Alice says. “We were both a little scared. We really thought about it. We ran our feelings and thoughts through our sponsors and took their suggestions.”
Two years later, they got engaged. One year later, they married. And now, after 10 years together, Alice and her husband have an 18-month-old daughter and another baby on the way. “We both know that our No. 1 priority is sobriety,” Alice says. “If we mess up our sobriety, we mess up everything.”
As with all couples, they’ve had their hard times including fertility issues and personal health problems. But they work through the rough spots by staying committed to their sobriety and to each other. “I think as anyone struggles, an alcoholic can make it more warped,” Alice says. “I really had to start focusing on my program, focusing on my higher power. For us, we fall back into the program. It’s given us back our life.”
Alice believes that love will happen if you are ready and open to it. And she shares her best advice for dating in recovery: “My sponsor had me write down a list of who my ideal partner would be. I made that list for the first time in my life. I didn’t know I could choose! It was an awesome experience.”